Andrew Worsdale talks to James Mitchell head of Little Bird, a prolific production company that started up in Dublin and now twenty-five years later has offices in London, New York, Los Angeles and Johannesburg.

James Mitchell started up Little Bird in 1982 when the UK’s Channel Four started commissioning independent producers. Their first project was the hit period comedy series The Irish R.M, which was a huge success, they followed it with numerous television productions as well as producing both Bridget Jones movie adaptations, the critically-rated Croupier starring Clive Owen, Ordinary Decent Criminal with Kevin Spacey and Mike Newell’s whimsical drama Into The West with Gabriel Byrne.

The company first came to South Africa in the late nineties when CEO James Mitchell was involved in finance deals with Coronation Capital, “I was visiting to do some deal or other and I became interested in the country and the people. I found this great attitude of ‘can do’ and ‘anything is possible’ which I found very attractive.”

By chance, while he was looking around filmmaker Pascale Lamche, who had worked for the company on various documentary projects before, was in South Africa developing her first project as a director. This turned out to be the award-winning feature documentary Sophiatown. Little Bird would produce Lamche’s next film Accused #1: Nelson Mandela and shortly thereafter set-up office in Johannesburg.

“Johannesburg is not only the commercial and cultural capital, it’s also the centre of the South African television industry and home to most television and production personnel,” says Mitchell, “Little Bird is first and foremost a television producer and so Johannesburg is an ideal base.”  As for the standards of South African crews and talent Mitchell says he’s “a signed-up fan” – “I don’t think the attraction of South Africa is simply cheapness, because our experience suggests that one is also buying quality. It is true however that for us South Africa is a particularly cost-effective place to produce primarily television product.”

At last year’s Sithengi, Mitchell spoke to movie-scribe Kevin Kriedemann who quoted him in the Market Daily as saying, “South Africa has a world-
class infrastructure for film production but a reasonably low cost base. It used to be a very low cost base; now it’s just a low cost base…it makes you wonder why a lot more people didn’t discover South Africa a long time ago. The surprise isn’t that South Africa’s been found; the surprise is that there hasn’t been a huge amount more shot here.”

One of the company’s major hits is the kiddie’s TV show Uncle Max that was shot in and around Johannesburg and which will commence production on a new series early next year, again lensing across Gauteng. After doing a budget for shooting in the UK, they prepared another that costed in the factor of flying in and accommodating the director, producer and principal cast and shooting in Gauteng still worked out 35% cheaper – without factoring in incentives or rebates.

The 26-part series is a kind of Mr. Bean for kids. Written by David Schneider who also plays the lead, the concept is that of a “human cartoon”. Max is the “babysitter” to his 8 year-old nephew and together they get into many adventures ­in a pizzeria, laundromat, library, dentist and a marathon where Max ends up losing to a three-year-old kid, a granny with a Zimmer frame and a tortoise! The gangly, rubber-faced Schneider, whom you’ll recognise from cameos in Mission Impossible and  28 Days Later says the series was inspired by the movies of Chaplin, Keaton and Jacques Tati as well as his childhood memories of Scooby Doo and Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Executive Producer Nahrein Mirza told me that it made sense to shoot in South Africa, “All the locations needed for the show are generic and shooting here is one-third cheaper.” Mirza says they wanted to make a quality product with international standards. To that end, they employed the best local crew available, many of whom have worked on commercials and features including top D.O.P Jonathan Kovel. Because the series is silent there was no problem in casting all the supporting characters, but in order to help make it look like the U.K. there was a careful ratio used when selecting extras, 50% white, 25% black and 25 % other and the standing rule was to tell them to keep out of the sun!

In addition to the Uncle Max series the company co-produced maverick first-time director Yunus Vally’s controversial look at miscegeny and sexual mores The Glow of White Women and is currently producing the series Total Soccer which consists of eight documentary films a year focusing on the build-up to the World Cup in 2010 and how it affects the lives of all South Africans.

“Now, I don’t have any knowledge of soccer,” says Mitchell, “but the country has been awarded the 2010 World Soccer Cup and that is a huge deal…nothing like this has ever been

Uncle Max
staged on the African continent, so 2010 has become a defining moment for all South Africans black and white, old and young ­ everybody sees it as something that is going to change their lives. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to follow many of these stories over the four-year build-up to 2010. The difficulty is, how do you finance that?”

Little Bird managed to raise funding for four years worth of production by forming a partnership with Total, the oil company, which is sponsoring the series. “The series­, which is eight hours a year, plays on South African television that satisfies Total South Africa’s need to promote their brand. But we’ve retained rights in that material for the rest of the world. I doubt if anybody is going to be interested in 32 hours on the build-up to the 2010 World Cup but they may well be interested in some cut-down versions or countries which have got teams who have qualified, and want to make their own build-up to the World Cup programming, will want to combine it with the material that we have.”

The company has already put up excerpts from the first series on YouTube and Mitchell says “it’s extraordinary the reactions we are getting. It’s very gratifying that we’ve got five star ratings on all of these films, but we also get tremendous feedback on what actually works and that’s going to be very valuable in how we shape future programmes.”

Thus far they’ve also produced the highly-rated tele-movie Anner House based on a script by celebrated author Maeve Binchy which has resulted in a spin-off six-part series which will be managed from Johannesburg, but shot in Cape Town. They also produced Whiskey Echo a four-part series shot in the Magaliesburg about international aid-workers in the Sudan.

Although centred on documentary and television production Mitchell says that Little Bird is firmly committed to South Africa and will continue to look for local content to produce. In the same Market Daily interview at last year’s Sithengi he was quoted as saying, “I think there are lots of South African stories to be told once one gets beyond apartheid and gangsters.  There are over 45 million people in this country – they can’t all still be dealing with the struggle or be involved with gangsterism. There must be more.”

A year down the line he tells me, “I didn’t mean to preach or to offend but I think if South Africa decides that films are important culturally, socially and commercially the industry will grow. It’s not just about money, although that’s obviously a big factor, it’s above all whether you think films matter.” For Mitchell and Little Bird, it’s obvious that they do.